THE air is thick with hair gel and testosterone. Never have I seen such a short queue for the ladies’ loo at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre.
It feels like we’re gathered here for a concert, or maybe an edgy, taboo-busting stand-up show. But no, we’re going to be listening to a self-help lecture. At least I think that’s what this is.
Professor Jordan B Peterson is promoting his latest book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos – a somewhat rambling mixture of advice, anecdote and Bible analysis that rails against what its author sees as the blinkered and flawed ideologies of leftism, feminism and environmentalism, while never quite setting out any kind of positive vision for society.
When Peterson arrives on stage – erect, with shoulders back, as per the first of his “Rules” – he receives a rapturous welcome. A man in my row performs a Wayne’s World-style “we’re not worthy” gesture, others punch the air and a woman in the front row of the balcony leaps to her feet.
So what on earth is the huge appeal of this Canadian psychologist, and in particular his appeal to the young men who make up most of the audience? There are very few clues in the first half of the show, which takes the form of a meandering lecture and draws heavily on Peterson’s practice as a psychotherapist.
There’s little rhetoric here that one would instantly connect to the so-called “alt-right” – he talks about the need for courage in the face of life’s dangers, and the importance of listening. He describes the psychological benefit of tidying one’s room and talks about transcending cynicism and about the process of negotiation (as opposed to compromise) that is key to a healthy relationship.
It feels like a dad – or perhaps a cool uncle – delivering a pep talk to a young lad who’s getting good grades but is being bullied at school and is too shy to talk to girls.
I find myself thinking “if this is what young men are paying north of £50 to hear then that’s a bit confusing, but it’s hardly alarming”.
But I suspect this first part is not the main attraction. The regular sound of flipping seats as full-bladdered attendees nip to the loo during the lecture provides some evidence to support this. They are waiting for the good stuff.
They aren’t particularly interested in learning about how to be a good listener when their hypothetical future wives come home from work in a foul mood. They don’t particularly care about the therapy client – rather poorly anonymised, like several mentioned in the book – who, with Peterson’s help, found the courage to finally raise her arm more than three years after a traumatising car crash.
No, what many are waiting for is the part where Peterson lays into what he regards as the anti-science, anti-men, anti-responsibility concept of social justice.
None of the men (or women) I spoke to before the show seemed particularly incensed about this. There were no tell-tale references to “snowflakes” or “social justice warriors”. But several seemed to take re-assurance from Peterson’s certainty that his views were right (even when they themselves identified with the left). A few spoke about the need to take responsibility, and suggested they had found in Peterson the role model they’d been desperately seeking.
During the interval attendees are invited to submit questions online. When we return to our seats, and Peterson settles into the armchair at the centre of the stage, he answers one: “The University of Glasgow School of Medicine has listed ‘social justice’ as a core value – how have universities got to this point, and what can we do about it?”
This is all the prompting Peterson needs, and within minutes he’s in full flow. As with 12 Rules for Living, his response is a muddle. He highlights the precarious nature of work in academia – the short-term contracts and lack of security – but only after effectively suggesting that those who teach subjects he disagrees with should be unemployed, because universities should be providing “education, not activism”. Social justice is an “abysmal ideology” and a “bloody mess”, he rails. “Real scientists think it’s absurd”. He adds: “If you like bridges that don’t fall over … you should let your political types know you are unimpressed by this.” Quite how acknowledging discrimination and striving for equality leads to wobbly bridges is left unexplained.
Rather embarrassingly, in this extended rant against progressive values he makes repeated reference to The Female Eunuch, “a book by Betty Friedan”, clearly having muddled up Germaine Greer’s 1970 classic about sexual oppression with Friedan’s rather different earlier work The Feminine Mystique. For a man who places such value on getting facts right, it’s a rather significant blunder. Was fear of having sloppy mistakes like this highlighted the reason why no press tickets were made available for tonight’s show?
While the whoops and cheers suggest this is what many came for, a review of the many questions left unanswered point to rather different motives. “I’m 42: what should my priorities in life be?” asks one. “I have provided a good life for my partner and she’s genuinely happy but I’m miserable,” confesses another. Vulnerabilities are shared. An eating disorder is disclosed.
“What’s the most beneficial thing I can do to help my daughter to navigate this largely hostile world?” asks someone. My top tip would be not bringing her to a talk like this, where women’s experiences of sexual harassment are rubbished and the ridiculing of feminists is cheered. Also: tell her to be suspicious of any man who trumpets his amazing listening skills while loftily dismissing the work of women whose book titles he can’t even get right.
As I walk up Bath Street after the show, Halloween parties have begun and ghouls are roaming the city centre. I’m briefly startled by the sight of two figures clad in white boiler suits and matching masks, before the rational part of my brain assures me they are almost certainly benign individuals disguised as dangerous ones.
Peterson, I fear, is the opposite.